WHAT IS AN UMPHREY’S McGEE?
Umphrey’s McGee is what would happen if King Crimson, Steely Dan and John Coltrane met at a street corner for the express purpose of paying tribute to the Grateful Dead…or was that to kick the living crap out of them? No matter. Umphrey’s McGee does a great job of both.
While Umphrey’s McGee may not yet have achieved household name status in prog circles, they are certainly well known on a jam band scene that has stretched its borders in recent years to encompass elements of prog, folk, metal, industrial, electronic, world music and numerous other flavors. It is, however, perhaps the central aspect of Umphrey’s McGee’s existence that they suffer from a Freudian crisis at the notion of being a member of a club that would have them as a member. Rolling Stone writes that they “have become odds-on favorites in the next-Phish sweepstakes…” and yet most members of the band strongly resist being categorized as a jam band at all. Phish comparisons? No thank you. Mention the Grateful Dead on pain of death, dismemberment and Sudden Cell-Phone Failure Syndrome.
And they’re not all wrong. While many might classify them as a jam band, few do so without qualification. They’re far more varied than just that. Others – including, at times, the band themselves – are much more comfortable with comparisons to King Crimson and Frank Zappa. Reviews of their current album Anchor Drops are more likely to mention prog bands then the deities of Jam. And the addition of a drummer with bona fide jazz credentials (including a masters degree) and a series of highly publicized gigs with Joshua Redman have led to frequent references to the band’s incorporation of jazz elements. But still, what they really are, and where they feel most comfortable is in the rock world. “A little bit of everything played at an aggressive volume,” says guitarist Jake Cinninger. “We put on a rock show.”
Progression: Are you a jam band?
Jake Cinninger: No. We’re totally a rock band. Jam band lumps everyone into a pile. We try to change it up a bit. We try to play it really tight; a Dream Theater type mentality – tight sections, everyone playing on the same down beat. We’re more progressive rock. We have sections a, b, c, d , e, f & g instead of the more traditional A, B solo thing.
Brendan Bayliss: I don’t know what the hell we are. We do some things that fit in, but many that don’t (like “Bullhead City” on Anchor Drops). We like to think of ourselves as “quality music” – So, I don’t know. Maybe we once fit into the jam band category, but now it doesn’t really cover everything that we do.
Kris Myers: Are we a jam band? (Laughs). Well, I guess you can say we are. A lot of people in the band disagree…we’re more of a fusion of things. We play anything western under the sun…country, rock, punk, R&B, hip hop, heavy metal, and reggae and a slight touch of jazz….and I’d say progressive rock if you want to throw that in….a darker sound a la King Crimson, and Yes and Genesis too. People tend to hear that prog touch to our music.
Progression: So what about all the Phish comparisons?
Kris Myers: Yeah. A lot of people tend to relate us to Phish. I don’t understand that, maybe because some of the members grew up on it….but it’s just another influence.
WHAT DOES AN UMPHREY’S McGEE SOUND LIKE?
Umphrey’s McGee’s sound is a complex mix of its many influences. In the end, the sound is a wicked brew: one cup of Jam, ½ cup of Metal (heavy), 2 tablespoons of Pop, one cup of Prog, ½ cup of Jazz and a pinch of Bluegrass, all steeped for three hours (with a 20 minute intermission between sets). As drummer Kris Myers put it, “the thing about us is that we show the influence of everything we’ve done in the past. Everything we’ve been influenced by we try to play it every night.” Jake Cinninger, the band’s lead guitarist, puts it differently: “a little bit of everything played at an aggressive volume.” In addition to the band’s repertoire of 130 original songs they also have over 200 cover tunes – ranging from Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” to the Police’s “Miss Gradenko” and further afield still – that they might play on any given night.
The band consists of Jake Cinninger (lead guitar, synthesizers, vocals), Brendan Bayliss (guitar, lead vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Andy Farag (percussion), and Kris Myers (drums, vocals). It is primarily Cinninger and Bayliss who define the band’s sound. Cinninger is a good-old-fashioned axe-slinging Guitar Hero who would seem to be perfectly comfortable in Frank Zappa’s stunt guitar slot. Neither Steve Vai nor Mike Kenneally have a thing on him. And yet Cinninger resists that characterization:
“Stunt guitar? Not really. I’m working to be a lot more lyrical lately. I’ve always played quick. Over the last two years, though, I’ve been trying to pull it back and do a David Gilmour aspect….solos are meant to be themes, not just a lot of notes.”
And he’s right. Cinninger does a lot more than just play a lot of notes fast. When he tries to be lyrical he does it well. He’s as likely to sound like Steve Hillage as Steve Vai. Which style depends on the needs of the song. “Its easy to make a bad musical decision and hard to make a good one. In the moment what are my best choices….most of the time less is more, all the way.”
There is also a strongly melodic side to Cinninger’s playing. While some in the prog world have likened Cinninger to Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, his sense of drama and melody is more akin to Roine Stolt. In the end, though what separates Cinninger from any of the obvious prog or metal yard markers is the way he does it all – and does it all with a sense of groove. And, like it or not therein lies a fundamental and direct link to Phish’s Trey Anastasio.
Cinninger’s vast musical vocabulary is the result of numerous influences. “Eddie Van Halan style? Yes, but I love Wes Montgomery, Steve Howe with the open string licks…there are hundreds of guitar players that were involved in shaping my style.”
Brendan Bayliss is the band’s “other” guitarist. He is also the band’s lead vocalist. This might tempt one to compare him to Bob Weir. But if the fastest way to piss off the band is to tell them they sound like Phish, telling Brenden Bayliss that he reminds you of Bob Weir would definitely have to be a close second. While it may well be that (to paraphrase Hamlet) the lady doth protest a bit too much, Bayliss is definitely not all wrong. Where Weir was always there mostly to carry Jerry Garcia’s briefcase – and you’d have to go a long way to find someone who actually preferred Weir singing lead – Bayliss is a major musical force in Umphrey’s McGee. He is the primary lyricist, one of the primary writers, and is more than enough of a guitarist to carry most bands on his own.
In fact, originally Bayliss was Umphrey’s McGee’s only guitarist. While Bayliss will be the first to tell you that he is not the guitarist that Cinninger is – indeed he will freely admit that trading licks with someone sporting Cinninger’s vast musical vocabulary sometimes gets a bit intimidating (“sometimes I’m tempted the last time around to just go get a drink”) – it was actually Bayliss who persuaded the band to bring Jake on board. One can ask whether that was a testament to the limitations on Bayliss’s ego or his intelligence – but it was an inspired stroke. The interplay between the two guitarists has become the defining aspect of Umphrey’s McGee’s sound. It accounts for the frequent comparisons to King Crimson and Frank Zappa. It lends the band the multilayered textures and powerful dynamic variation that is among the key differences between Umphrey’s McGee and others on the so-called “jam band circuit.”
The reality is that as many of those in the jam scene whisper that Umphrey’s McGee might be the heirs to Phish, the members of the band themselves seem more interested in being the next Flower Kings. Actually, all they really want to do is play.
Progression: What music did you listen to as a kid?
Jake: ELP, Yes and King Crimson. My parents had a great record collection: Weather Report, Passport, John Lee Hooker, Miles, Mahavishnu, Coltrane. I was completely obsessed with records at 4 and 5. I HAD to listen to them. It was almost like a sickness. No toys…I was too involved with what was on this black surface. I liked the dynamic story telling of Genesis…I didn’t fully understand it but I knew it was a story. By the time I was 8, 9, 10…I was playing drums to Brain Salad Surgery and Tarkus. I learned every lick.
Brendan: The Beatles – particularly The White Album…everything from Rubber Soul on – The Police and a lot of U2 (especially Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree).
Kris: Rock. I grew up on Zep, Hendrix, Living Colour (when they came out), the Police and The Beatles. The Beatles was unintentional. My mom had it on and I just heard it growing up. I listened to a lot of The Police.
BRENDAN BAYLISS ON THE MEMBERS OF UMPHREY’S McGEE
Jake – Music. Passion. Jake’s focused on music; it’s who he is. Even in soundcheck he plays with fire.
Ryan – He lives life to the fullest. A very talented musician, he’s full of life, full of energy. Ryan enjoys having a good time.
Andy – He’s the most mature of us even though he’s the youngest. He speaks soft but carries a big stick…two, actually. Stoic. Solid. Andy doesn’t really care about glamour or glory; he just wants to play music and get to the next venue…which is very admirable.
Kris – Kris is ridiculously gifted and he is a very pure person. He’s very true and honest. There’s a shortage of that in the world. New to the inside jokes and lifestyles….he’s adapted well, he’s the only reason we’re still doing it.
Joel – Joel is the behind the scenes guy. From the beginning he got us off the ground, booking, doing numbers. Joel kind of IS Umphrey’s McGee. He’s a lot of the other side to the music. The brains behind where we go, why we go, when we go….
Brendan – I’m just the pain in the ass who speaks too much, bitches and moans. Can’t shut up, can I?
WHERE IS UMPHREY’S McGEE FROM?
Umphrey’s McGee was formed in December 1997, in South Bend, Indiana, by original members Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), and Mike Mirro (drums, vocals). They recorded their first album, Greatest Hits Volume III in 1997, years before they had their first hit, whatever that is. Percussionist Andy Farag came on board for Songs For Older Women shortly thereafter. Guitarist Jake Cinninger joined in 2000, contributing guitar pyrotechnics and powerful songwriting, including an ample back catalog from his prior band, “Ali Baba’s Tahini.” The two bands were the leaders – some might say the only members – of the South Bend Prog/Jam scene. One Fat Sucka followed before the band finally went into the studio to produce Local Band Does OK. Critically lauded, the album began to spread the Umphrey’s name beyond the insulated confines of the jam scene. In 2003 they released their first DVD, Live From The Lake Coast, offering both fans who had not seen them in concert the full-on Umphrey’s live presentation, light show and all. The DVD was the swan song for original drummer Mike Mirro who went on to attend medical school. Imagine the pleasures of surgery in paradiddles. Kris Myers replaced Mirro in 203.
Progression: What are your influences as a drummer?
Kris Myers: Well, two of them are John Bonham and Stewart Copeland.
Progression: That’s about as different as drummers can be, no?
Myers: Yes. But it all filtered through. I just use my best judgment what to do with a particular song. On a slower song I’ll tune my drums lower and go for the Bonham sound. On something that’s faster and funkier I’ll go for a Copeland approach. I’ll tune the snares higher and be a bit more reggae.
Progression: Interesting. Any other influences?
Myers: Yes. One big one – really big – is Peter Gabriel. Genesis as well, but particularly his solo stuff.
Progression: How so?
Myers: First of all it was the sound of the drums. How he recorded them.
Progression: Is music more real live or in the studio?
Myers: I feel like production defines the song in the studio. It makes you have a direction and a vision for when you play it live. You might be more sensitive to surroundings in studio than live and so you internalize the music a little more. It makes you focus on all the nuances; the little intricacies.
Progression: So the studio is more real?
Myers: Well, writing is the most real part of it. With that, I hasten to say that you want to apply a lively sense of playing…you have a tendency to hold back, not play as much. Once you learn what the song sounds like, you need to lay into your live take. You have a tendency to get a little too anal about everything which takes the life out of what you do.
KRIS MYERS ON THE MEMBERS OF UMPHREY’S McGEE
Jake – Passionate. Hard worker. Fiery. Very committed to music…110%. The band’s leading voice, instrument. Everything he does entails that fiery quality. A great sense of humor.
Ryan – He enjoys life to the fullest. Likes to have a good time…all the time. Still, Ryan is very grounded, and a very talented player. He is great guy to have along and is the greatest team player on the stage.
Andy – Wise man. Soft spoken but very wise….with everything in life. He also has great taste in music and in percussion in particular. Not just noodling around playing nonsensical bullshit. He has schooling, education in the art of various different styles…the great attitude to the band. Accompaniest as well as a soloist. That’s just the way he lives life. Great guy.
Kris – I’m definitely the groundwork of the group….and I think I’m a clean freak. I don’t know…very thorough in the way that I do things. Not much of a multitasker. I may be ambidextrous behind the drumkit, but definitely not off the stage – I’m the slowest guy. More thorough and focused on doing one thing at a time. Good sense of humor.
Joel – Talented songwriter, singer and a great soul, great person. Joel is extremely funny with a really dry, elusive sense of humour. He’s a real smart ass. He leads you on – in fact, he can do that with his playing. Sometimes he does things unintentionally…and then it ends up kind of working out.
Brendan – He is the CEO of the group. He keeps everyone together. If one of the guys isn’t feeling right that night, he won’t feel right. Brendan is very sensitive to making sure everyone is feeling good with the vibe and what’s going on. At the same time he is very set in making sure we all know each transition….everything is clear, musically. A good businessman. He is, errm, very frugal…to say the least. A gentlemen and a scholar.
WHAT DOES UMPHREY’S McGEE SOUND LIKE LIVE?
Ask when Umphrey’s McGee is going to hit the road and the answer, in all probability, is “now.” Umphrey’s McGee is what it is because of its prolific national touring schedule. The band plays 150 to 160 shows a year, headlining nearly all of them. The few times they don’t headline it is at such high-profile events as the Bonnaroo Music Festival – the jam scene’s version of NEARfest…on steroids. Attendance at this year’s Bonnaroo was 90,000! Shows like that might have been the highlights of the road but it is the everyday gigs that have forged the band.
At the heart of the band’s sound – and no doubt the reason they are so often identified as a “jam band” – is the improvisational nature of their live performances. And yet Umphrey’s McGee’s jams are quite different from those of the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers or most other bands generally associated with the jam scene. The band’s jams are focused and purposeful rather than just meandering. As Bayliss puts it “eventually what we want to do is get to the point that we’re trying to improvise in Sonata form.” There is a lyrical, dramatic quality to the band’s jams that does not in any way detract from the spontaneity of the improvisations.
This seeming contradiction is at least in part the result of the utterly unique “system” of visual “cues” that the band uses to communicate in real time during the jams. Jake Cinninger describes these cues as akin to the hand signs that baseball managers and coaches use to communicate with batters and runners (and catchers use with pitchers) during games.
For example, as Cinninger says, “if I take a little step forward with my left foot that means move up half a step – from A to A sharp. A big step means to go from A to B.” And the band’s quiver is full of such arrows. “If I lift my guitar neck that means go up a major third. If I stomp my foot slowly we slow down. If I stomp fast we gradually speed up.”
Some of the signs are more exotic than others. For example, Bayliss says that if he rubs his nipple that means “milk it” – because the jam is working so well. If he and Cinninger look at each other with their tongues out – a la Kiss’ Gene Simmons – that means that they must instantly play as many notes as possible in a short time. There are signs that indicate the rhythm section should drop out. There are signs that the two guitars should drop out.
The musicians deal these signs to each other in real time. “We do it in the moment, jamming – everyone is looking at each other. You don’t want to be the one who misses one of those cues.” Cinninger adds that he does not think of these as “necessarily ‘jams’ but rather as ‘progressions’ that are 16 chords or 32 bars long.” According to Cinninger, the players essentially say to each other “digest this and spit it back to me.” He describes their improvisational style as: “Burn through the song, tighten it up, take the drums out, pull the rug out from under each other and tear it down, rebuild it.”
Review an Umphrey’s McGee setlist – and every single one for every single night is on the band’s website – and you will see what appear to be songs called “Jimmy Stewart” and “Jazz Odyssey.” They are not songs. Rather, those terms are setlist placeholders for the band’s fully-improvised pieces. The difference? A “Jimmy Stewart” is a ten minute (or so) piece whereas a “Jazz Odyssey” is a shorter transitional improvisation.
As Cinninger tells it, a “‘Jimmy Stewart’ starts off with just a drum beat, dynamic low, with everyone thinking. It’s a game. Who’s gonna come up with something to spawn the progression. It’s everybody else’s job to jump on it as soon as possible so that it’s seamless. Then when someone else comes up with something, we work together to go there.” That’s where the baseball cues come in.
The “Jimmy Stewarts” and “Jazz Odysseys” serve another purpose in addition to filling places on the band’s setlists. They are the band’s R&D laboratory. The band frequently listens to a previous night’s show on the way to the next one. They seize on what works and will often use a soundcheck to refine it, develop it and work it into a song. Often, these sections and figures will reappear in a subsequent night’s jam and go through the R&D lab process once again. For example, the song “Ocean Billy” grew out of a “Jimmy Stewart” from a September 2003 show. By late October the song began showing up on setlists having been worked at soundchecks and in various jams during intervening shows. Bayliss remembers one such “Jimmy Stewart” when he started improvising the song’s lyrics over the music in realtime. “We listened to playback and just said ‘it sounds like a song.’”
As much as 35% of the material on their new album, Anchor Drops was written in this fashion. Another more recent example is the song “Bridgeless,” a deeply proggy affair that sounds like Frogg Café playing Red-era King Crimson. “Sometime you get lucky,” says Bayliss. The song, which post-dates the recording of Anchor Drops is, according to Cinninger, reflective of the band’s current direction.
Progression: What has the change in drummers meant to you? How has it affected you?
Cinninger: Totally. It could have ended the band. Instead, it’s opened up a whole nother side of things. Mike went to College. He wasn’t a music major. Kris has a masters in jazz. He has incredible prowess on the drums. The guy looks like he’s tossing a salad back there.
Progression: But you guys seriously thought about calling it quits?
Cinninger: Yeah. He was an original member. Who were we going to get to learn all that music? And then, right across town in Chicago, the first packet we opened was from Kris. It sure took the stress off.
Bayliss: Losing someone it becomes personal. You’re losing a friend. And the forum, the structure…changed. You ask questions: What’s going to happen? Is this over? Are we going to find someone who’s going to want to be friends?
Progression: So how was it coming in?
Myers: It was a challenge. The hardest challenge was to learn their whole volume of music in less than two weeks before I had to play my first show.
Progression: Why was it hard? Just the volume?
Myers: That and the fact that they don’t have charts. It’s the mathematical phrases – that’s not exactly the right word – but lot of counting, dissecting parts. “Counting riffs and patterns” in order to get through a song, lots of changing meters. They stay away from 4/4. They’re a lot in 7, in 5. Its almost like in classical music. The band approached in that sense.
Progression: Do you still count or is it just internalized now?
Myers: Now it’s just internalized. I get a sense of the vibe now. After you’ve gone through it you make music…to make music you need to internalize, abstract…fills and grooves that work well with what’s going on with the music.
Progression: What about the non-musical aspects of it.
Myers: Socially, it was great. I got along great with the guys right away. We related, it was a good fit to their chemistry. The fans were going to be a little….being the new guy its not easy. The drummer’s position is the hardest to fill. That feel and chemistry that Mike had is different. A lot of fans were a bit standoffish at first. You have to prove yourself to them. Only from the feedback. Personally, I didn’t feel the pressure…I just went in confident and felt I was going to just lay it down. I could sense what people were thinking…but that’s OK.
ANDY FARAG ON THE MEMBERS OF UMPHREY’S McGEE
Of Brendan Bayliss….sarcastically thoughtful
Of Jake Cinninger…ferocious
Of Kris Myers….rippin’
Of Joel Cummins….key-liscious
Of Ryan Stasik…soul-ful groover
WHICH ONE’S UMPHREY?
Why, the same one that’s Pink, of course: all of them and none of them. It all depends on which urban myth you believe. According to band legend, “Humphrey McGee” is the uncle of band member Brendan Bayliss. There is also a story floating around that the band’s namesake was Bayliss’ housekeeper.
Bayliss says neither is true, that Mr. McGee is his second cousin. A lawyer in Southern Mississippi, Mr. McGee has absolutely nothing to do with the band except having lent it his – and its – name. The “H” was lost in some sort of “sacrificial giving.”
Whatever. The moniker is quite clearly the worst decision the band ever made. There is little doubt they would have dumped it but for the inconvenience of their success.
JOEL CUMMINS ON THE MEMBERS OF UMPHREY’S McGEE
Brendan – 5’9 160. Brown hair, brown eyes. Brendan is a master of lyrical disguise and could be the most dangerous tennis player/guitarist east of the Mississippi. Killer serve, decent backhand, above-average guitar hot licks.
Jake – 6’1 175. Blond hair, blue eyes. A lover of obscure music, ’80’s metal and otherwise, Jake can most likely play and master any instrument, found object or musical style faster than you can say “Frank Gambale rips my face off.” A sucker for a good margarita.
Andy – 5’8 150. Black hair, brown eyes. Andy chooses his words wisely and speaks them with even more wisdom and precision. He dreams about golf, but more often than not, percussion is his voice of choice. Like Queen’s Roger Taylor, I have a sneaking suspicion that Andy is also “in love with his car.”
Kris – 6’0 170. Dirty blond hair, blue eyes. Just as Kris has a propensity for 4-way independence on the drums, he has 4 things in life that mirror those independent limbs: a love for cleanliness, organization, 8 hrs of sleep per night and Sprite. He often quips, “I am going to get somewhere sitting around drinking Sprite all day.”
Ryan – 6’2 175. Brown hair, blue eyes. The gregarious and action-packed personality that is Ryan Stasik can be summed up as a pursuit of the following three words: the good life. Good bassist, good attitude, but huge Brit-emo vocal potential
UMPHREY’S McGEE SETS SAIL
Umphrey’s McGee is the proud owner of a bouncing new baby album, Anchor Drops – its release coming shortly after the announcement by Phish that they are giving up the ghost before it is ripped unwilling from them. To listen to Cinninger tell it, Anchor Drops is the album the band always wanted to make but never before had the equipment, the time or the funding to realize. “We were never really able to do what we wanted to do in the studio,” says Cinninger. “We were always rushed before. This time, every nook and cranny of the album is accounted for. It has a nice continuity to it The solos are a little shorter but they mean more. Its more song-oriented but retains the prog rock feel.”
The album is a not what one would expect from a so-called jam band. Then again, of course, the band does not think of themselves that way. If they did they would not likely offer a tight, song-oriented 65 minute, 14 cut disc that is nearly devoid of anything approaching a jam. There is a persistent rhythmic inventiveness on the album. Indeed, a case could be made that – whether live or on Anchor Drops – everything Umphreys does starts with rhythm. In a sense, much of what they do is similar to 80s-era King Crimson. Even the long, sinuous guitar lines – while obviously containing huge harmonic possibilities – seem somehow fundamentally rhythmic in nature. Live, it often seems that Cinninger and Bayliss build their improvisations out of the rhythmic core of a song rather than out of its harmonic or melodic aspects. In the studio, on Anchor Drops, the rhythmic orientation manifests itself more compositionally but is never far from the surface.
And somehow Anchor Drops does manage to catch an important aspect of what Umphrey’s McGee feels like live. The band’s growing success allowed them the resources to bring to bear the experimental spirit that they thrive on live as well as the technical prowess that separates them from so many others who travel under the “jam band” banner. And yet Anchor Drops also captures all of the band’s vitality, spontaneity and abject power. Indeed, while their previous studio effort, Local Band Does OK, certainly captured their improvisational abilities and suggested their deeply prog tendencies, it did little to depict the band’s ability to rock out live. Anchor Drops rectifies this. The ultimate result is something that, though it defies precise description, lands somewhere between Frank Zappa, the Dixie Dregs, Pearl Jam and … yes, Phish.
It is probably an accident that Umphrey’s McGee released Anchor Drops in such close proximity to Phish’s announcement of their impending disbandment. But that coincidence has done nothing to quiet the buzz about the band and the crescendo of suggestions that they might be Phish’s heirs. And yet, perversely, this may be breaking Umphrey’s way. Now, suddenly, the focus is on how they are different from Phish, not how they are similar. Now, critics and fans want to know what they do differently than Phish – indeed, what they do better. Now the world wants to know what they bring to the table.
And what is Umphrey’s McGee’s answer? Well, in large part it is prog. Now, a jam scene that has always hinted at a willingness to embrace aspects of prog is welcoming Umphrey’s McGee’s rhythmic complexity, instrumental virtuosity and flair for epic drama. Is Umphrey’s McGee a prog band? Are they a jam band? Are they the next Phish? Are they the next Fish? The answer, of course, is “All of that and none of that.”
Whether or not Umphrey’s McGee will, indeed, be “the next Phish” the spotlight seems to be doing something very important for them: freeing them to be Umphrey’s McGee and drop anchor where they will.
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